Club will struggle to keep squad together

icon dundeeutd132 December ~ A non-Old Firm team challenging for Scottish honours is rare – one full of gifted young Scots even more so. Real Madrid are paying attention and, frankly, everyone should savour Dundee United before January's transfer window. There's growing YouTube evidence of a team which, while hardly invincible, only seems capable of winning in a blaze of style. Laying on half the 13 goals United have scored in their last three games is 17-year-old Ryan Gauld, nicknamed "Mini-Messi". Twenty-one-year-old Turkish striker Nadir Ciftci is the foreign component.

Big, aggressive and silkily skilful, he's the axis around which Gauld – already an Under-21 international and reportedly scouted by Real Madrid – and the ball-juggling Gary Mackay-Steven, 23, construct the most entertaining United attacks since the 1980s. Kilmarnock are the only top-flight team to lose to United this season without conceding exactly four goals. After October's 1-0 league defeat, Killie were pounded 5-2 in Friday's Scottish Cup tie, despite being level with 14 minutes left.

Celtic will retain the league title. Even in the battle for second, Inverness and Aberdeen are capable of suppressing United. But Ciftci's first-half dismissal at Inverness was the difference in a League Cup quarter-final his team-mates only lost in the 120th minute. And almost half the SPFL Premiership are already out of today's last-16 Scottish Cup draw.

Partick Thistle's top flight-return actually accelerated after Jackie McNamara left to manage United in February. Worse still, McNamara's United lost two league encounters with Celtic 6-2 and 4-0 and only made the top six by the skin of their teeth. Many retrospectively questioned his contribution at Thistle. This season United have already put eight past Thistle and conceded just once in each meeting with Celtic. McNamara is now seen as a possible future replacement for Neil Lennon at Parkhead.

Yet there's a growing feeling United's current operation renders managers as expendable as the players they are continually selling. McNamara's predecessor, Peter Houston, was only the second Tannadice manager to win the Scottish Cup. He left claiming he couldn't take United any further under constraints which eventually halved their £6 million debt. Houston is still without a job.

McNamara's Tannadice debut was a Scottish Cup hammering of Rangers. The two players who shared United's three goals that day seemed irreplaceable – Johnny Russell joined Derby County for £750,000 and Jon Daly went to Rangers for free. Both are now forgotten. David Goodwillie, one-time scorer against Spain, was loaned back to United as his 2011 £2m move to Blackburn flounders. He's confined to United's bench by kids.

Left-back Andrew Robertson, 19, has scored four in his last three games. Like Mackay-Steven, midfielder Stuart Armstrong, 21, is already in the full Scotland squad. Last month another 17-year-old, John Souttar, dared a step-over back-heel pass, at centre-half. The stunned media reaction summed up Scotland's desperation for flair but Sunderland recently bid £600,000 for him.

Upon securing majority shareholding, chairman Stephen Thompson recently promised a "six figure" investment, no diminution of the youth system and proposed free coaching for local ten-year-olds. He also granted contract extensions to several first-team starlets. While no one is under any illusions about how long they'll actually remain, we shouldn't assume their departure will curtail the entertainment at Dundee United. Alex Anderson

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